The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education and on Wednesday confirmed Sen. Jeff Sessions to be U.S. Attorney General – despite overwhelming opposition to each from the civil rights community. They will now both lead federal agencies responsible for enforcing civil rights laws.
DeVos’ confirmation required a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence. It was the first time a vice president broke a tie to confirm a Cabinet nominee, and spoke to the widespread concern about her qualifications and commitment to civil rights enforcement raised by civil rights groups, concerned parents, and educators across the country.
“The Department of Education has a legal obligation to protect the civil rights of all students, and we, along with our coalition partners, will be watching to ensure that Secretary DeVos fulfills that responsibility,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference. “Our children are entitled to, and deserve, a quality education regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, disability, gender, gender identity, sexuality, first language, family income or immigration status. While a setback, this vote is not a defeat. Working with partners at the federal, state and local level, we will hold this new Secretary accountable to faithfully executing our nation’s education and civil rights laws. Our Constitution, economy, future and children deserve no less.”
After Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine announced their opposition to DeVos, Sen. Sessions’ vote was necessary to confirm her. Immediately after her confirmation, the Senate moved to begin debate on Sessions’ nomination.
As they did on the DeVos nomination, Senate Democrats held the Senate floor overnight to assert their opposition to Sessions’ confirmation. On Wednesday evening, after 30 hours of debate on the floor, the Senate voted (52-47) to confirm him.
Henderson called the Senate’s vote a “grave mistake.”
“Confirming Sessions has jeopardized the equal and fair treatment of people of color, women, the LGBT community, people with disabilities, immigrants and refugees. Sessions has an extreme 30-year record of demonizing these communities and has built his career on disregarding the rule of law and fueling hostility towards the protection of civil rights. Sessions, an early cheerleader for Donald Trump, also failed to prove that he would serve as the people’s lawyer, not the president’s,” Henderson said in a statement. “Sessions’ nomination has been so toxic that Senate Republicans shamefully silenced Senator Elizabeth Warren Tuesday night when she tried to read a 30-year-old letter from Coretta Scott King on the Senate floor that opposed Sessions’ previous unsuccessful nomination for a federal judgeship. King had written that, as a federal prosecutor, Sessions used his power to ‘chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.’ Three decades later, nothing in Sessions’ record disproves her words.”
Sessions’ nomination was met with strong condemnation from civil rights organizations and advocates. The Leadership Conference sent a letter to the Senate on behalf of more than 430 national, state, and local civil and human rights organizations, groups that don’t normally take positions on nominees felt compelled to oppose, and Sen. Cory Booker, D. N.J., became the first sitting senator to testify against another senator’s Cabinet nomination. Rep. John Lewis, who nearly died fighting for voting rights in Selma in 1965, and Rep. Cedric Richmond, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, also testified against him.
“Despite today’s vote,” Henderson said on Wednesday, “our values and our quest for equality and justice will prevail. And the civil and human rights coalition will continue to fight for the rights and liberties of every person in America.”